The Unbearable Whiteness of Environmental Groups

Yesterday, the above tweet was posted. I looked at all the white grey-hairs and sighed. We have a problem in SoCal and no one seems to want to notice or address it. The people who get paid to write about the history and environment of Southern California are almost always white men, with a few white women who “found” themselves while appropriating a culture or were former teachers. To be sure, there are a lot of Latino and Asian authors out there who also get paid to write on SoCal, but many of them are also (former) journalists or teachers. I almost never see them invited to panels outside of Asian or Latino venues and events.

Los Angeles, as a city, has a great history and LA County has an even wider one. There are so many little niches to fill, that I find it impossible to believe that only white men can tell the tales. But we look at that table of authors in the photo above and it’s evident that only white men are allowed to tell the tales. That table, that audience is fairly typical of these types of events.

I like learning history and culture. It makes me more aware of why I do certain things or rather why, collectively, we do or have certain things. The history of Los Angeles is especially interesting is with local indigenous groups being wiped out by Spaniards and Mexicans effectively taking over the state for a bit, there’s a lot of glossing over some issues. There is a rich history here from Mexican, Japanese, black and Chinese residents. These four groups give Los Angeles so much of it’s more popular culture. That’s not something you’d realize reading local print media or looking at fundraising galas.

The Tongva were the local indigenous group of Southern California. The Spaniards came  in 1781 bringing war, murder and rape all under the guise of religion. When you read the history of Southern California, the Tongva are often mentioned in passing, while white men 100 years after the Spanish arrived are given credit as “pioneers”. This article from KCET is an unexceptional example of the above.

Which brings me to gatekeepers and environmental groups. On the surface, conservation and preservation groups seem like an outstanding idea: saving a bit of history for later generations to learn something about the past. You can’t go wrong with that, right? Look at that picture again. Look at the photos from Nature Friends LA. Look at the boards and gala events of any of these groups. It’s quite blinding, right?

I used to be very active with environmental groups (to be sure, the below also happens with museums and liberal groups). I volunteered my time, expertise and money. In 2006, after some really gross encounters with people from Friends of Ballona Wetlands and Friends of Santa Monica Bay, I walked away. See, the one thing a dark skin black woman is guaranteed to have to deal with is blatant racism in the form of “honest questions”. When I was in college, I went to these events and galas often because I wrote someone’s speech or a mentor wanted me to meet someone else.  I was well aware that these “well-meaning white people” (this is long-hand for “racist assholes”) were showing off their “smart black girl”. They beamed with pride as one of their friends told me how well-spoke and eloquent I was, unaware or uncaring of the look of disgust on my face or the condescension in my reply. After I got married (1999) and had kids (2003), things only got worse.

The most common statements/questions I receive(d) from the white women were:

“Wow! So you married before you had kids? That’s really great!”

“Your kids have the same father? Oh, that’s wonderful!”

“That’s good your kids know who their fathers are.”

“I worked with some inner-city kids, so I know in your culture…”

Let me tell you…”well-meaning white ladies” get mad when you ask them the same questions or reply with, “Wow, that’s an extremely rude question. Why would you ask me that?”. I mean, storming out the door-call you out your name-mad.

“Well-meaning white men” always went for sex jokes first, then flirting. When that didn’t work, they moved on to their “inner-city kids” story along with trying to use AAVE, which usually started with “I know whatchu mean, girlfriend!” The look I gave them made them realize they may not return home with all their limbs or alive if they kept talking to me. After that, they either ignored me or acted like I had the mental capacity of a 5 year old.

The other thing that these groups tend to do is “forget” their non-white volunteers. When there was something to be done, I was never the first called. Even with years of volunteering with the same organization, the white girl who popped in twice 5 months ago would be called before me. The white dude who showed up 3 years ago that one time, would get ten calls before they called me. If I showed up just to see if help was needed and/or when, I’d be ignored or told to call back later. If a school from South Central or east LA was attending, then I’d get a call.

This cycle is only made more frustrating when I’m told by some “well-meaning white person” that “Not a lot of [people of color] are interested in history/conservation.” I always ask if they had previous black volunteers who left. (yes) If the questions I was just asked were posed to them. (squirmy shrugs) And if so, why would any person of color want to volunteer their time to place where racist questions like that are common. (red-faces). Finishing off with, “We’re not disinterested in history/conversation. We’re uninterested in affirming your racist views.”

This isn’t something that’s unique to me or to black people, in general. I know Mexican guys or Filipinas who can tell similar stories. This is a problem solely with one group. The one group that is chasing away people…young people and people of color from staying with your organization and helping your expand your educational reach into communities you wouldn’t deign to visit without Teach for America giving you a shove.